On March 10, 2012, the American Studies program at American University hosted the Chesapeake American Studies Association Conference for the first time. The Chesapeake American Studies Association is a regional branch of the larger American Studies Association. Membership for the Chesapeake American Studies Association includes the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland. This year’s landmark conference focused on “American Studies in the World,” a topic perfectly suited to American University— an institution embedded in the international networks of Washington, D.C., and hailed for its globally-oriented programs.
“American Studies in the World” was spearheaded by Dr. Katharina Vester, director of the American Studies program and professor in the History Department at American University. The goal of this conference was to explore the transnational currents of American studies, including historic and current processes such as immigration, colonialism, tourism, trade, technologies, and other global interactions with the United States. This conference also investigated the political concerns of many American studies scholars who study or engage in community activism within the region. The chief purpose of this year’s conference was to evaluate where American studies is currently situated and where it is heading since its genesis as a disciplinary field in the mid-twentieth century.
This year’s conference showcased 16 panels that united scores of scholars from American University, George Washington University, George Mason University, University of Maryland– College Park, Mary Washington University, University of Maryland–Baltimore County, the College of William and Mary, as well as Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. The draw of scholars from all over the world enhanced the conference’s focus on American studies through a transnational perspective. Panels such as Transnational Cultures: Film, Fiction, Music, and U.S. and the World: Politics and Perceptions highlighted how American studies scholars expertly unravel transnational threads in American music, cinema, and popular culture. Other popular conference panels included Technology and Culture, Activism and Environmentalism, and an undergraduate research panel on race, politics, and sexuality in vampire narratives.
“American Studies in the World” also spotlighted esteemed American historian, Kristin Hoganson, who delivered the keynote lecture entitled, “Remapping Regionalism after the Transnational Turn: A Heartland History along a North-South Axis.” In line with the conference’s emphasis on globalization and locality, Hoganson discussed the word “borderlands” and how border crossings have extended into the U.S. heartland. Using the commercial enterprise of cattle production in central Illinois as an entry point, Hoganson remapped the history of the heartland on a north-south axis instead of an east-west axis in her lecture. Hoganson’s lecture nicely complemented the theme of the conference by revealing how a transnational approach can help American studies scholars rethink the contours and politics of the nation.
Another unique feature of this year’s conference was its inclusion of workshops. Workshops at this year’s conference concentrated on an array of topics including online queer communities, homelessness, and social media activism. The conference also provided a food studies workshop led by prominent food historian Warren Belasco, who used this meeting to establish the first Food Scholars of the Chesapeake Region Chapter. In addition, the conference featured a professional roundtable workshop led by working professionals in the Chesapeake region who discussed the wide range of professional opportunities for American studies students at community colleges, libraries, archives, and museums. These workshops fostered a cross-pollination of ideas and contributed to the lively atmosphere of the conference.
The conference concluded with dessert and a movie, the Red Lantern, a silent film from 1919 recovered by historian Krystyn Moon in the Royal Belgian Film Archives. The screening of the Red Lantern was likely the first time that this film has ever been shown in its entirety since the 1920s. The film, set against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion, tells the story of Mahlee, a woman who is cursed by her mixed heritage and is ultimately destroyed by it. Mahlee's mixed heritage combined with the setting of the Boxer Rebellion speaks to the widespread fear among several twentieth-century European Americans that the Chinese were a "yellow peril" that threatened white supremacy. This powerful film fittingly concluded this year’s conference on the internationality of American studies and culture.
Professor Katharina Vester was delighted that the conference jumpstarted an ongoing conversation about the international threads of American studies. This commitment to contextualizing American studies in the global world is further evident in the research of Kathleen Brian, 2012 Graduate Student Essay Prize winner for her paper, “Suicide Runs in Families: Metasomatization in the Life Insurance Industry, 1862-1883.” Congratulations to Kathleen Brian and many thanks to everyone who participated in this year’s dynamic conference on American studies in the world.
For more information about this year’s conference, please visit the conference website.